Why You Shouldn’t Waste Money on Camera Apps

Why You Shouldn’t Waste Money on Camera Apps

While a $5 camera app is hardly the largest expense to many photographers, the most recent generation of phones has made it clear that it’s wasted money.

Camera apps have been around since the earliest days of the App Store. Remember the orange tinge that permeated every shot uploaded during the start of Instagram? Over the last couple of years, a number of “pro” apps have launched, including Halide, Moment, and Obscura. They promised to give you the tools to create better images, with an emphasis not on filters, but on things like manual controls and raw capture.

After shooting extensively with the latest versions of some of these apps, including an in-depth comparison against the stock camera app, I don’t believe there’s much value in keeping them installed. Put simply, the phone manufacturers have added enough “secret sauce” to their imaging pipeline that an app just won’t create a better quality image, in most cases.

Computational Imagery

I’ve covered the implications of computational imagery as it relates to the iPhone and features like the Pixel’s Night Sight in previous articles, and I’ve been impressed by what a difference these processing steps make. Apple has clearly put a ton of work into squeezing every drop of performance out of their cameras, with Deep Fusion being a prominent example. 

Night mode can make for a surprisingly clean image, even under low light.

Deep Fusion combines 9 images, shot before, during, and after the click, to reduce noise and enhance detail. Importantly, this processing is totally opaque to the user, requiring no input. With Night Mode, Apple gives users some control, including adjusting duration across a few second range, it’s essentially an on or off switch for long exposure. Beyond these steps, Apple has put more effort in behind the scenes on things like lens corrections (see the ultra-wide camera) and image processing that leverages the comparatively immense processing power of the phone’s processor.

All these processing steps mean that to shoot raw, the headline feature for many camera apps, you’re looking at a lot of work to get anywhere close to what you get from the stock camera app. For some of these processing steps, like night mode, it isn’t really even possible to duplicate it, as you can’t truly capture the same raw data available to the app.

When it comes to interchangeable lens cameras, raw is a clear benefit over JPEG. In phones, however, the files have little additional latitude when saved as a raw file. Sure, you have less discretion over HDR and white balance by sticking with the default camera app, but are you really micromanaging those settings when shooting with a phone? 

In a situation with this broad of a range, raw isn't going to save the highlights.

Furthermore, since I’ve been using the default camera app, the only image quality issues that came up were from shooting beyond the performance envelope of the phone itself — something no app would make up for. As an example, subject motion in low light just won’t work — not with Night mode, or by cranking the exposure on a raw from Halide. In fact, the blur reduction on Night mode might actually give it an edge.

Home Team Advantage

This one is more specific to Apple, where the stock camera app is a first class citizen. What I mean by that is you can’t put Halide on the lock screen or in the control center. It’s such a little thing, but just being able to jump immediately into the camera is so conducive to the type of photos I find myself taking with a phone.

This extends to how files are handled, too. Granted, HEIC can be annoying to deal with if all your devices aren’t fully updated, but iOS’s raw handling is even worse. Apps will often error on the side of caution, saving a JPEG alongside their raw file, making for a cluttered mess of files when you actually bring them over to your computer.

Lastly, developers have had to make compromises when it comes to file types, since Apple doesn’t support every file type in every camera mode. With Halide, for instance, you can end up with a .DNG raw file, a HEIC or JPEG file, and a .TIFF file, all in the space of a few photos! So much for the simpler photography experience promised by a cellphone camera...

Solving a Nonexistent Problem

A number of pro camera app’s features are solutions in search of a problem. As an example, the iPhone’s 4.2mm focal length translates into a hyper focal distance of about 6 feet, meaning everything from about 3 feet to infinity is in focus. Got something closer than that? Tap to focus has worked just fine, in my experience. Also, since it’s a phone, you probably aren’t focus stacking, dealing with an adapted lens, or shooting in low light beyond the AF capability of the camera. As a result, camera apps with a manual focus mode just aren’t useful.

When I'm just shooting snapshots with my phone, I don't find myself worrying about focus peaking - just being able to efficiently grab a shot is enough.

Those points also apply to focus peaking. It is a cool looking feature, but it isn’t going to impact how you shoot, owing to the deep DoF and large screen you’re composing on. The same goes for highlight clipping in stills - when your exposure control is effectively just an ISO and shutter speed slider, you don’t need that fine grained degree of control. 

Depth sensing has been the latest push from camera apps and may represent the only real value add from one of these apps. I don’t shoot any depth enabled photos, so I can’t personally  speak to the significance, but this may be the last bastion of these apps.

Reliability

Writing stable code is hard, I can appreciate that. What I don’t appreciate is having an app repeatedly crash, potentially costing me the shot. It’s not just me running into these issues, as a quick check of the major app’s reviews reveal a common theme of crashes.

This problem is further compounded by the misaligned incentives of app development. The one time purchase paradigm that many of these apps operate around incentivize developers to sell, but not not to maintain. As a result, even prominent apps can see months go by between updates, all while issues pile up.

At least on iOS, the camera is a major focus of development, and clearly receives a huge share of the development team’s resources. This results in major feature updates with each new iOS version, with long periods of stability in between. I’ve not had the native camera app crash, or ever generate an issue with file outputs.

Dawn of a New Age?

Don’t throw out your App Store gift cards just yet. While pro camera apps have stagnated, there are a few bright spots still left. Apple hasn’t put the same effort into video as they have photos, leaving the door open for pro video apps.

Apps like Filmic Pro offer a wide variety of tools that aren’t matched in the stock camera app. Log video is more significant than raw photos, while frame rate controls and resolution support makes it easier to integrate video into your existing workflow (unlike the camera app’s messy file situation). Higher quality encoding also produces cleaner files, something which isn’t fully supported natively.

Lastly, some apps are innovating. Computational photography for pseudo-long exposure effects are an interesting feature, while the previously mentioned depth sensing features can also be of value.

To conclude, it’s a combination of the inherent feature growth and first-class treatment of the stock camera app that has eroded the bedrock of pro camera apps. They still exist, I still have some installed, but for the last few trips, I’ve not opened them. Do you still find yourself using a camera app outside of the stock one?

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19 Comments

super steel_'s picture

an older phone my V20 but I love the manual stills/video features it offers. manual aperture/shutter/iso/wb and focus peaking and excellent mic adjustments.if mfr were still making swappable battery phones id upgrade . its a huge benefit to me. I keep an extra battery in my wallet and go from 5% to 100% in less then a minute. im tired of the anchoring to charge it and im tired of the battery packs were the connector gets bent and I have to buy endless cables. im tired of it. I also can keep screen brightness at 100% all day.

Stuart Carver's picture

PhotoPills and similar are the only ‘camera’ apps that are needed.

Alex Coleman's picture

I've definitely found those create the most value for me too.

Jonathan Brady's picture

Can you imagine if native camera apps are ever able to control a dedicated camera and perform the same computational photography functions? I mean, my A9 can already shoot 20 fps so that should open it up to image averaging just like an iPhone's and also Google's native camera app (theoretically). What about something like the A7R4? Even better, right? Especially if a stacked raw file could be created.
Let's make this happen!

Alex Coleman's picture

I'd love to see that level of innovation out of the manufacturers! The first thing they'll have to do is put a far more powerful processor in, as the image processing chip they use now is much for focused on the tasks involved in moving a single image off the sensor. It'd basically be an entire re-imagining of how everything behind the sensor operates.

Paul Scharff's picture

I have advocated since the Pixel 1 that at least the more pro compacts like the RX 100 employ this kind of computational photography. Even the RX 100 VII can't touch the iPhone 11 for low-light exteriors, by a mile.

Alex Coleman's picture

I think the biggest strength is the ease of use of these features. Night mode is literally point, click, hold - while you can duplicate some of the functionality right now with any camera like the RX, it's way more work.

Ryan Ringstad's picture

well you can't specify a shutter speed with the stock camera app so if you're shooting your friends doing some action sports the stock app does not work. You will likely get blurry images.

Sure it's a niche use case for a lot of people but often the only camera on me when I am mountain biking or snowboarding is my iPhone.

Alex Coleman's picture

Interesting - I've not done any action style photography with my phone. Do you get good results with it?

Ryan Ringstad's picture

I mean it’s not as nice as my A9 obviously, but in a pinch when you just want to be light and share something on social media it works fine.

This was shot on my iPhone X in DNG format using Lightroom camera (part of iOS app) with shutter speed set to 1/2000.

Les Sucettes's picture

Don’t waste money on apps fullstop. Unless they have a cross platform application... Dropbox, Adobe for example is one of the few apps I would spend on if I didn’t have a free account via a side gig.

Deleted Account's picture

"Don’t waste money on apps fullstop." Why not?

Alex Coleman's picture

I think there are a number of apps that are worth the money. Someone already mentioned Photopills as an example. I just don't believe camera apps are worth it.

Paul Scharff's picture

I agree ALMOST completely.

Apple's stacking wizardry does in fact create far better shots than apps which normally rely on single shots. But I still use four apps which each do things Apple's cameras can't.

1. PROCAM. This (and others; it's not unique in this regard) allow you to force Apple to use its 2X camera for indoor shots without ultra-bright light. If there is not a ton of light when shooting at 2X with Apple's native app, Apple will use its faster 1X lens and digitally double it.
2. FOCOS. This allows you to create a selective focus at an aperture you select and can change after the fact, no matter which lens you are shooting with. It's like Portrait Mode on steroids.
3. FUSION. This takes three exposures that you can control when you combine them after the fact. It's helpful in those situations where your highlights are blowing out in Apple's native app. It only works with the 1X lens.
4. HYDRA. This stacks AND pixel-shifts photos to allow you to get a 36 MP super-clean output. There can be nothing moving as it does not have ghost-removal, but for certain requirements, it's stunning. You can use it on all three lenses.

Finally, one niggle: "Apple has put more effort in behind the scenes on things like lens corrections (see the ultra-wide camera)." I have found that my 1X and 2X lenses don't require correction, but the 0.5X needs it a lot when the edges of the frame are close to you (e.g., an architectural interior). Happily, Photoshop desktop and Lightroom iOS app both have the corrections built in and it zips to perfection with one click.

Overall, though, I agree that Apple's computational wizardry beats what all the other "manual" apps can do. Thanks for the article.

Alex Coleman's picture

Interesting recommendations - I'll have to check out some of those apps.

As for corrections, I'm referring to things like vignetting, distortion, and CA. Apple corrects some of those right in the image pipeline, as an example the ultrawide doesn't even support raw, owing to the huge amount of distortion present in the lens.

Paul Scharff's picture

Thanks for that lens correction clarification. I do a lot of interiors so almost 100% of my lens correction issues revolve around bending near the edges. I don't get that at all with the 1X or 2X, but it's pretty significant with the 0.5X. I was pleased to see the correction profiles immediately loaded into Adobe after the camera came out.

Alex Coleman's picture

Yeah, a part of that is just going to be perspective distortion inherent to a wide angle lens, as compared to the barrel/pincushion distortion that can occur in any focal length.

Willi Kampmann's picture

Stated this definitively (and clickbaity), this is just nonsense. When I’m at a concert where I can’t use my system camera and have to rely on my iPhone, I *need* an app that lets me use RAW, lets me set the shutter speed, and offers me a zebra mode. The stock camera app is absolutely useless in that case in my experience. I’d also rather have the shutter speed be a multiple of the lamps’ power frequency than take my chances with auto settings.

The night mode of the stock camera app is absolutely magic, but when I can’t use it (because of movement in the scene), shooting RAW in low light and processing that with Topaz creates results that are just embarrassing to the iPhone’s JPEG engine. For that use case alone, you couldn’t spend 5 bucks better than for a camera app!

I’m also loving Spectre’s handheld(!) long-exposure mode. The stock camera app can’t even come close, nor could any other camera. *This* is magic, too! Will it be sherlocked at some point? Sure, probably, but so far a third-party app is the only way to go.

And the reports of stock camera apps basically becoming climate catastrophe deniers by color-correcting wildfires away are possibly the most damning case of why we need manual white balance.

Are these specific cases? Sure. Are stock camera apps the best option for most *everyday* situations? Yes. Do I think the stock camera app is all my mum will ever need? Lol yes! But this is a photography website, not a website for people that occasionally also take a photo or two. You shouldn’t think of camera apps as replacements for the stock camera app but as supplements to extend the camera’s capabilities and work around its limitations. For f’s sake, right now I’m looking at the FStoppers front page and seeing an article stating “there’s something magical about Leica”, and here you are cheaping out on a $5 app that could seriously improve the capability of your iPhone camera.